Three Pulps

Ever since stumbling across Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest at a library book sale six or seven years ago, noir/hardboiled pulp  has become one of my favorite escapist genres (especially the stuff written from the 1920’s-50’s). I already reviewed a couple noir tales this year – here are three more:

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: A Novel by [Woolrich, Cornell]Title: Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Author: Cornell Woolrich
Audiobook Narrator: Angela Brazil
Genre: Psychological (Supernatural?) Thriller
Pages: 256
Rating: 4 of 5 for the story / 2 of 5 for the narration

Cornell Woolrich doesn’t rise to quite the same level as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but I would probably place him in my top five pulp authors. He tends to use odd descriptions  that are more weird or unintentionally humorous than atmospheric (e.g. “her hand closed on the bill like a voracious pink octopus”), but those aside he can plot a brooding, paranoid crime story with the best of them.

This book differed a bit in subject matter from other Woolrich stories I have read. The same dark paranoia pervaded the plot, but the subject matter centered around prophecy and fate. What do you do when the date of your death is foretold by a man who has repeatedly predicted the future with perfect accuracy? Is there really something supernatural at work or is it some sort of scam? The book was perhaps a bit overlong for extended brooding on this theme, but overall it was an interesting psychological thriller (and had fewer of his weird similes and metaphors than usual).

The narrator of the audiobook I listened to was not great. I think she was trying to affect a cynical, world-weary tone, but it mostly came off obnoxiously flat and slow. Shatnerian pauses added to the painfulness and I ended up listening to it at 1.5X speed to get it up to a more normal reading rate. Avoid the Audible version!

Title: The Getaway
Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime Fiction
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Jim Thompson has a knack for bringing seedy, nasty criminals to life. He plays on readers’ interest in reading about the underworld but without making the criminals into likeable, sympathetic people. His criminals might have a lot of charisma, but he fully portrays their self-centered exploitive destruction of themselves and the innocents around them.

I have previously read his treatment of con men in The Grifters and a serial killer in The Killer Inside Me. In The Getaway we are treated to an inside look at a husband-and-wife pair of bank robbers. The downward spiral to destruction is typical well-written Jim Thompson, but the ending detours into an unusual dystopian setting. There is an odd shift in tone, but I think it worked very well and rounded out the story satisfactorily. If you like crime noir, this one is well worth reading.

Zero Cool: A Novel by [Crichton, Michael, Lange, John]Title: Zero Cool
Author: John Lange (Michael Crichton)
Genre: Action Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 2.5 of 5

While he was in med school Michael Crichton earned money by writing under the pseudonym John Lange. According to some things I read, these books were meant to be cheap, trope-y pulp thrillers completely lacking in originality. If that was truly the goal…bullseye.

Zero Cool features your basic “random guy gets caught in the middle of criminal shenanigans” pulp plot. He hits all the tropes of femme fatale, bizarre Bond-style villains, a mcguffin, amazingly convenient coincidences, etc.. The dialogue in this sort of book is seldom realistic due to smart-mouthed, quippy characters, but Lange/Crichton’s dialogue settled for stilted instead of snarky. This was definitely on the very low end of the pulp fiction scale and probably not worth your time unless you’re a big Michael Crichton fan who is curious about his earliest work.

Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

“Success to Crime”

Today I will be giving a couple of quick reviews of story collections featuring successful criminals…sort of.

Title: Sleep No More
Author: P. D. James
Genre: Murder Mystery Short Stories
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5

Sleep No More collects six short stories that defy standard expectations for “cozy” mysteries. The settings are what you would expect: manor houses, small English villages, etc. However, in each story the point of view is not that of the primary investigator, and the murderer is not necessarily brought to justice (which does not always mean truly “getting away with it” in the sense of avoiding all consequences). The stories provide a quick, entertaining read as long as you don’t mind your fiction a touch dark and morally ambiguous.

My one criticism would be that the stories are so similar in subject matter that after the first two or three it’s pretty easy to guess where the last three or four are going very early on in the story. It seems a shame to lessen the impact of cleverly out-of-the-ordinary stories by packing them all into one collection rather than interspersing them with more standard fare.

This was my first P. D. James, and I was impressed enough that I’ll definitely have to try one of her full-length books in the future. Any suggestions?

Title: The Saint: Five Complete Novels
(The Man Who Was Clever, The Lawless Lady, The Saint Closes the Case, The Avenging Saint, The Saint vs. Scotland Yard)
Author: Leslie Charteris
Genre: Pulp Vigilante Fiction
Pages: 663
Rating:  2.5 of 5

My previous exposure to the character of Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was the 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer (my wife’s distant cousin). This book stars the original, and there’s very little resemblance to the movie version. Charteris’s Saint is a suave vigilante whose goal is to bring seemingly untouchable criminals to justice, usually also relieving them of a significant amount of money which he donates to charity …after taking his 10% cut, of course.

Simon is reckless and debonaire. He trades snarky quips with criminals who have the drop on him, laughs in the face of death, and uses his agility and physical prowess to save the day, though not always without personal loss. He seems to be the author’s conception of the ideal manly man in a world full of sad sacks, moral cowards, and sensitive snowflakes. It was definitely a mistake to read all five novels close together as his charmingly contemptuous man-boy act wore thin pretty quick (and some casual racism in one book and plot-centric antisemitism in another didn’t help matters). I generally enjoy snarky pulp heroes, but I’ll probably give the Saint a miss from now on.

Grifters & Fools

Image result for Grifters book coverTitle: The Grifters
Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Pulp Noir
Pages: 190
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Jim Thompson has a knack for writing sleazy characters who provide a glimpse into the thoughts and lives of the corrupt and criminal. In The Grifters we get to meet a con man who is skilled in the short con; his estranged, manipulative, criminal mother (only 14 years his senior); his trampy femme fatale mistress; and a sweet nurse with a dark, traumatizing past.

Some books and movies about con men present them as likable anti-heroes (The Music Man, Oceans 11, 12, 13). However, this book gives us a more believable look into the paranoid life of “grifters,” filled with loneliness, danger, and destruction (of self and others). By the end of the book the only likable character is Carol the nurse, though you may feel a touch of pity for some of the others.

The plot is a fairly standard downward slide into tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Overall, I’d say that this is well-written and perceptive in regard to human nature, but it’s the kind of pulp that leaves you feeling a bit gross at the end.

I am using this for my Classic Crime Story over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

ERB Does Historical Fiction

Picture1Title: The Outlaw of Torn
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Genre: Pulp Historical Fiction
Pages: 255
Rating: 3 of 5

Earlier this month I read Tarzan of the Apes and was thoroughly unimpressed. I decided to give Burroughs another shot in a genre that didn’t lend itself as easily to product-of-its-era casual racism. Judging from the awkwardly drawn musclebound caped rider on the cover I thought this was something in the swords & sorcery genre, but it turned out to be historical(ish) fiction set during the reign of England’s King Henry III.

The plot features a (completely fictional) prince kidnapped at a very young age and raised as an England-hating outlaw by a vengeance-seeking French swordmaster. As you would expect in adventure pulp, there’s very little actual history as the plot revolves around swashbuckling, chivalry, and romance. Basically it was the cheaper, pulpier version of escapist classics like Scott’s Ivanhoe or Stevenson’s The Black Arrow. Given its genre, it was okay…I probably would have really enjoyed it as a young teenager.

One thing that I found interesting/stupid is that Burroughs repeatedly denigrates the era’s obsession with noble birth, but also weaves in the “blood will tell” trope for our noble-born-but-raised-as-an-outlaw hero. I guess it doesn’t pay to think too hard when it comes to pulp…just sit back and enjoy the hokey action if you can.

Two Classic Adventures

This month’s read over at the Dewey Decimators was Tarzan of the Apes so I dug out this book that I’ve had hanging around for a while which contains both Tarzan and The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s kind of an odd pairing with the stories having little in common other than being escapist adventure written in English within 20 years of each other. I’m going to  go ahead and do a mini-review of each here.

Title: Tarzan of the Apes
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Genre: Classic Adventure
Pages 303
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a fair amount of pulp, but tend to avoid the Noble Savage (or Great White Hunter) variety, and this classic tale of the man raised by apes reminded me why. It had everything that I find grating in the genre: black people are canon fodder (except for the servant who was a racist caricature played for laughs), women are helpless ninnies (Jane would rather shoot herself than try to kill the lion climbing through the window), the action is stupidly over the top (putting a lion in a full-nelson hold…really?), there are more than the usual number of convenient coincidences even for a pulp, and it ends on a cliffhanger. I just can’t suspend my disbelief and ignore the “product of its era” cringey bits quite as much as this book requires. Maybe if I’d read it or watched Tarzan movies/TV as a kid there would be a nostalgia factor that would help me enjoy it more, but it just didn’t work for me.

Title: The Prisoner of Zenda
Author: Anthony Hope
Genre: Classic Adventure
Pages: 193
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This swashbuckling adventure tale that launched a sub-genre (the Ruritanian Romance) is good cheesy fun. An English gentleman visiting the small Balkan nation of Ruritania has to step up and pretend to be the king (who conveniently looks just like him thanks to some scandalous shared ancestry) in order to keep the throne from Black Michael, the king’s scheming half-brother who has him secretly imprisoned in the Castle of Zenda. To quote The Princess Bride, it has “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love…” Well, maybe no giants or monsters, but you get the idea. It’s good hokey fun that explores the idea of nobility (and even has some surprisingly moving moments).

The Curse of Capistrano

Title: The Mark of Zorro
Author: Johnston McCulley
Genre: Pulp Adventure
Pages: 311
Rating: 4 of 5

Warning: this review contains the spoiler of Zorro’s secret identity. Of course, that is probably only marginally less known than the fact that Clark Kent is Superman so it’s not much of a spoiler. Still, it would be a huge spoiler for the book if you somehow didn’t know so…you have been warned.

There have been many incarnations of Zorro ranging from truly entertaining to so-bad-it’s-good (the full color 15 minute episodes that came on after MacGyver when I was a teen in Brazil were hilariously lousy). This book is the original and it was good cheesy fun as Señor Zorro (only once or twice is he just plain Zorro) fights against and punishes abuses of power.

My favorite part of this book was the hero’s behavior when he is being Don Diego. This version of Don Diego acts like a ridiculous, languid fop so that no one could possibly associate him with the dashing Señor Zorro. Don Diego’s seemingly naive questioning of those humiliated by Señor Zorro is one of the more entertaining elements of the book.

This Zorro does not wield a whip (except in one instance of avenging a wrongly-beaten friar), preferring to hold people at pistol point long enough to set up a fair one-on-one sword fight. He only carves a into something once, but the plot features the usual mustache-twirling villains, spunky damsels in distress, galloping horse chases, etc. that you expect from the adventures of The Fox. I was expecting the book to end on some kind of cliffhanger setup for Zorro’s next great adventure, but it actually rounds off with what could easily be a “happily ever after” ending…enough so that I’m curious how Zorro ever managed to have any more adventures…I guess I’ll have to track down the next book to find out.

Robot Noir

Title: Made to Kill
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 1)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Science Fiction Noir
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

First, a huge thank you to The BiblioSanctum for hosting the book giveaway where I won this (and its sequel)!

I love both science fiction and detective/noir fiction (of the 1920’s-50’s variety – especially Raymond Chandler). This excellent book is a mashup of the two, and to make things even better it intentionally follows the style of Raymond Chandler. The author pictures it as the sci-fi novel Chandler never wrote and prefaces it with this quote from one of his letters: “Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this…”

Our first person narrator protagonist is the last robot on earth. He used to work as a PI, but now uses that as a cover for his new profession of hit man in an alternate 1960’s Los Angeles. His rechargeable battery and 24 hour memory limit are a challenge, so the room-size computer, Ada, is his boss and the real brains of the operation. The only part of the worldbuilding that felt a little “off” was that he didn’t get more attention from average people on the street, what with being the last robot on earth. I don’t want to say much about the case due to spoilers, but you can expect a lot of the kinds of elements you’d find in the pulps (of both the Amazing Stories and Black Mask varieties).

The narration is delightfully snarky like Chandler, though not rising to the level of cleverness found in his Philip Marlowe stories. The one narration things that got on my nerves after a while was how often he commented that when he smiled, raised an eyebrow, etc. it was only on the inside because his face is immobile. It got a bit repetitive (kind of like how Harry Dresden mentions his duster every few pages in the Dresden Files series). The ending was a little abrupt and some of the characters’ actions/motivations were a bit confusing, but that’s pretty par for the course for this kind of detective story (e.g. in Chandler’s The Big Sleep we’re never told who committed one of the murders). Overall: a fun mashup, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one (though I’m putting it off until I finish a couple other books I’m in the middle of so that I can make it last).

Fun Spooky Doom!

Title: Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom:
A Novel of Retropolis
Author: Bradley W. Schenck
Genre: Retro Science Fiction
Pages: 383
Rating: 4 of 5

First, a big thank-you to BiblioSanctum for sponsoring the giveaway where I won this. It was a fun read!

This lighthearted adventure is set in Retropolis, a city of the future as imagined by pulp sci-fi authors: hoversleds, personal rockets, mad scientists, priests of the spider god (who live on the moon), robots, and don’t forget the switchboard from the title. The author works in plenty of tropes without obscure in-jokes, so anyone can enjoy it. Either that or the obscure jokes went over my head…either way, it was great! Most of the characters are delightfully quirky, if a little one-note. I don’t want to describe them here because meeting them is a big part of the enjoyment.

Rather than straight up good vs. evil, this is more of an order vs. chaos story with a nice twist (though it does bear similarities to a popular children’s movie from a few years ago).  There were parts where the action was a little slow and messy, and I was wavering toward a three-star rating, but in the end the scattery style worked. The narration had occasional silly comments or clever turns of phrase that reminded me of a slightly saner Douglas Adams. Overall: not a literary masterpiece (after all, it is based on pulp sci-fi), but charmingly enjoyable.

Image result for yay we're doomed

Meet the Continental Op

Title: Red Harvest
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Noir/Detective Fiction
Pages: 215
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I first read this book five or six years ago, and I was hooked. Since then Noir / Hardboiled Detective pulp fiction from the 20’s-50’s has been my go-to escapist genre. With the possible exception of Raymond Chandler, nobody writes this kind of story better than Dashiell Hammet.

This first novel-length adventure of the Continental Op (whose name we never discover) has everything you would expect from the genre: bootleggers, gamblers, blazing guns, widespread corruption, murder, mayhem, moral ambiguity, 1920’s gangster slang, and a femme fatale or two. The unnamed Continental Op (basically a Pinkerton detective) is tasked with cleaning up the corrupt town of Personville/Poisonville and, well, the book’s title pretty much says it all.

This book serves as a good introduction to the Continental Op, who also appears in The Dain Curse and a slew of short stories. He is short, stout, and incredibly stubborn. His modus operandi for solving cases consists mostly of verbally poking at suspects and piecing things together from their (often violent) reactions. By the end he has a working theory of how everything fits together and everyone guilty is dead, under arrest, or otherwise out of the picture. Dashiell Hammett seldom reveals whether the Op’s reconstruction of events is entirely accurate, but it’s good enough to get things done and in Hammett’s murky world that’s good enough.